The seemingly unrelated lives of four suburban families intertwine with powerful consequences in “The Safety of Objects,” director Rose Troche’s masterful third feature. Though pitched squarely in the key of “Short Cuts,” “The Ice Storm,” “Happiness” and “American Beauty,” Troche’s unification and reworking of a handful of A.M. Homes’ short stories has something those films very pointedly lack: a genuine and tangible fondness and respect for the characters and their eccentricities. Auds grateful for a refreshing lack of cynicism and irony in their bigscreen entertainment should embrace pic’s message of fumbling dignity in the face of emotional and sexual confusion, suggesting strong theatrical biz and enduring popularity in all ancillary markets.
In a generic upscale American suburb (Westchester is suggested in Homes’ tome), Esther Gold (Glenn Close) cares for her son Paul (Joshua Jackson), established in flashback as a talented singer-songwriter now in a deep coma. Her daughter Julie (Jessica Campbell) is clearly angered by Esther’s attentions to Paul, while husband Howard (Robert Klein) seems to be resigned to his boy’s fate.
Meanwhile, tense and distracted neighbor Annette Jennings (Patricia Clarkson) doesn’t let a messy divorce and two kids stop her from coming on to Mr. Snippy’s Lawn & Pool employee Randy (Timothy Olyphant) at a local bar. In a nearby house, dedicated lawyer Jim Train (Dermot Mulroney) sleepwalks through his life after being passed over for partner at his firm, embarking on a comic odyssey of inarticulate consumerism that confounds his wife Susan (Moira Kelly) and ultimately revolves around Esther’s participation in a shopping mall-set competition to win a sport utility vehicle.
Finally, while health-conscious Helen Christianson (Mary Kay Place) projects an outward vigor, a profound inner boredom leads her to reach out for the company of strangers. Leisurely yet unerringly, Troche reveals complicated and cryptic linkages among the families with the precision of an interlocking puzzle. In pic’s most crucial development, Randy kidnaps Annette’s tomboyish daughter Samantha (Kristen Stewart), and the fallout of this action wraps up central mystery of Paul’s coma and Julie’s inarticulate anger. Troche’s principal achievements are twofold: first, she’s shaped key elements of Homes’ stories into a seamless, logical narrative. Second, she’s made a quantum leap in the depth and confidence of her direction, coaxing career-best perfs from everyone involved while fleshing out each storyline to maximum impact.
Pic’s strong sexual element is presented with taste and wit. An early, bravura sequence where Julia’s masturbation on a backyard chaise lounge as the principals go about their mundane daily business codifies exquisite tonal balance of pic as a whole. A later sequence in which two of the children comment on each other’s genitalia is shot in such a way to evoke maximum humor without sacrificing an ounce of dignity.
Most fantastic and outrageous plot thread finds Jim’s young son Jake (Alex House) becoming enamored with his sister’s iconic doll Tani; to her credit, Troche never allows these sequences to become smug or off-color. At first blush the title hints at an ironic attachment to material goods, but by the final crane shot of a new family being welcomed at a neighborhood barbecue it’s clear that Troche sees the complex organism that is the neighborhood as its own support system, often dysfunctional but anchored by the tangible things that give it form and meaning.
Tech credits are tops across the board, led by the intuitive widescreen compositions of d.p. Enrique Chediak and Andrea Stanley’s production design, which is a miracle of suburban verisimilitude. The original alt-rock tunes by trio known as Emboznik lend film a musical street cred while shrewdly commenting on proceedings. Tani’s breathy voice is provided by Guinevere Turner, co-scribe of Mary Harron’s “American Psycho” and star of Troche’s 1994 bow “Go Fish.”